Tag Archives: stereotypes

Are We Tackling Race, Or is Race Tackling Me?

In the last three days, I forked over nearly $20 for chips and salsa at the overpriced market across the street from school without batting an eye, consumed half of that purchase before giving my dogs a half-a#@ed walk and throwing myself into bed, nearly the rest of the other half of the chips and salsa and a Grasshopper Sundae (size small, but that makes no difference at all) the following day, kept a 6:30 pm bedtime, and prayed to whoever runs the universe that tomorrow is a snow day.

My poor eating habits and sudden onset exhaustion are directly correlated to introducing issues of race in the classroom this week. Such an endeavor utterly wears me out–like so much so I will probably sleep all weekend to recover a bit of myself–and now, today, I realize why people just choose to avoid teaching race.

Cause to really do it, to go all in, particularly as a Black woman teaching mostly white kids, means I have to steel myself for the ignorance–because they really DO NOT know–while reminding myself not to react too viscerally (particularly hard today when one innocently remarked that he didn’t know why Black folks had problems with one picture of a lawn jockey that smacked of racist tropes) and to occupy the stance and the mantra: raise awareness, but don’t preach, as English educator Bruce Penniman suggested in his book.

Real talk. To even raise awareness is incredibly challenging, largely because if one is perpetually in the position of Colonizer, why should that person even care about the Colonized?!?

Therein comes the theory. Oh post colonial theory, you are both a conduit and a curse because when you give kids a different way to read a text and they start to think about what voices have been left out of the conversation and what that means?!? Get ready for the mishegas that follows. You can’t prepare yourself for it, actually. You will be bowled over (silently, of course, as you bite your lip to keep from reacting) at their comments about skin tone (and why and how people of color can be so many different…colors?!?), as they repeat the stereotypes as they try to present their views, as they make their classmates of color attempt to make the floor open up beneath their seats so they can stop having this conversation. You will step into the conversation gingerly, but confidently, as you give them the language to talk about what they’ve internalized for years and what they believe to be true. 

There’s a moment, sorta like in the Matrix, where I hear a bunch of students’ voices transposed over my own, another that’s not my own yelling you better right this ship, KP, and I step out of the room to gulp some air that feels incredibly stale and repeat 100 times, as fast as I can, itsworthititsworhtititsworthit.

I thank the universe again for a White male student teacher who isn’t afraid to speak truth and own his privilege and who spells me while I have a minor meltdown because this is so hard and why do I have to do this, all I wanted to do was give them a different lens for reading a text. I didn’t think THIS was going to open up so many doors that I knew were going to open but…all…on the same day?!

I’ve become increasingly more agile at talking about issues of power, race, privilege, equity with non-POC students, while positioning myself as a person who cares about my students and one who also considers it critically important that they understand–or at least wake up for a moment–why we live in a world that isn’t fair for everyone because others have particular rights and privileges that are unearned, closely protected, and unwilling to relinquish.

But all those thoughts go through my mind, as I stand in the hallway gulping (or am I gasping?) air, sipping water, getting myself together, reminding myself not to take it personally. Of course, I’m lying. I can’t help but take it personally. They are my students. On my watch. I have complete confidence that some of them might just run the world some day. I need to make sure they’re paying attention and actually doing some good in the world. 

This work with postcolonial lit theory is merely a crack in the door as we confront these big ideas and issues, and debate Okonkwo’s inflexibility, and question if Dolce and Gabbana bears any responsibility for sending their racist earrings down the spring 2012 runway. But I do know that they’re becoming more aware–and again, it’s incremental progress, but, in issues such as this, it’s best to take progress where one can find it–and questioning what single story/master narrative it is that they’ve been consuming for years and why we need counternarratives. 

I did sit at my desk for a good thirty minutes after my last writing conference today:  immobilized because it takes so much out of me mentally to talk about these issues. I do know that if more of us were talking about this stuff, then I could share the load and not feel so wrung out at the sheer amount of work required simply to raise awareness. I cannot even begin to fathom, at this moment, the next necessary steps that will help them continue making connections between these ideas and texts and what’s to come.

There it is. I used to be so skeptical–disbelieving is probably a better word–when people would tell me that they didn’t really “teach race” in their classrooms, thinking that they didn’t do it because they didn’t want to do it. I think, now, that there’s some truth in that. How do you initiate these conversations knowing that they will require far more of you as a teacher than drafting an essay assignment? That you’re going to probably feel wiped out as a result of those conversations for at least the next week? That you’re going to replay myriad comments and interactions for weeks to come? 

It can wear you out. It’s certainly worn me out.

 

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On This Incredible Day

I returned to class to find that one of my students had taken some liberties with a poster hanging on the door. He/she had taped a picture of Sweet Brown, a Black woman made infamous for her reaction to a fire. She essentially became a viral sensation for all the wrong reasons.

Anyhow, her particular response, “I ain’t got time for dat” was what was posted. While I wasn’t shocked when I saw the meme, I was…disappointed, I guess. That’s the beauty about insensitivity and all that’s wrapped up with it (racism, classism, sexism)–when it hits you in the face, you have to deal with it. I mean, I could have simply ignored it, took the poster off the wall, tossed it in the recycling bin, made a comment under my breath about “these kids” and kept it moving.

I didn’t, though. I told the kids that I was bothered by the poster for several reasons, the greatest among them being that it traded in stereotypes. That it made fun of someone who was Black, poor, from a region of the country that was different from ours. And I’m sure I fumbled around for some other words, but I tried to raise awareness, but I also intentionally made a point not to preach. Preaching gets you nowhere. You’re better than this, I said, simply, finishing with something like I need you to be the people that ask questions about what we see, that make things right, that don’t do what’s easy because it’s funny.

On the fly, when grappling with issues like these, I can either be dynamite or dismal. I think I was probably somewhere in the middle: I was tired, I was annoyed and I was, as I said, disappointed. I mean, we’d had some breakthroughs already in class, addressing issues of oppression and inequality, so when this incident reminded me of how much further we all must go…yeah, I was fumbling and stumbling for my words.

I gave the same speech to all the classes. I will probably never know who did it, but at least the message was consistent: you’re better than that. We don’t trade in stereotypes in this classroom. Ask critical questions and make some change in the world.

That night, while checking my email, I found that one of my students had sent me a link to an article about ironic racism, Antoine Dodson and Sweet Brown. He asked if I could send it out on the class Twitter, thought it germane for the conversation earlier that day.

OMG. They GET IT! At least one of them does. All it takes is one, right?!

I can’t quite describe that moment: me sitting at the desk, with some cynicism attempting to dampen my spirits, and there’s this kid’s email…

Next day, I read the article to the group and explain that said student gave me the language I needed to express my frustration: ironic racism. We had some brief discussion and I posted the article, both on Twitter and on the FYI wall (the announcements section of the room).

I am so grateful to him first for being an ally (because I have few kids of color in my classes this year), for being able to speak truth to power, for giving ME the language to use…for taking responsibility for helping us all understand why we need to wake up and pay attention.

Yup. It happened. On that one incredible day.

And I can quickly summarize that in the days after, I ended up having some moving conversations with kids about awareness, about their own anger that people weren’t more outraged, about being invited to bring my fourth period to an assembly for LGBTQ awareness…all small steps to moving us in a positive direction.

I also realized that I, too, have a choice. I can be disappointed in the kids, or I can be heartened that–together–we can string together more incredible days, where events such as this happen.

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